Michelle Obama became the First Lady of the United States in 2009. She came from humble Chicago beginnings and through hard work and determination took the first steps on a successful career in law. Is this a story of the American Dream?
Her autobiography brings into question the whole idea of the American Dream for African Americans, and especially for African American women. Is she unique, or is she leading the way?
She was born in January 1964 into a family who lived on Chicago’s South Side. They were not well off, her father maintaining his job at the local water plant despite advancing MS, her mother was a stay-at-home mom. She had an elder brother Craig. The family was tight knit, and surrounded by a large community of relatives and friends. The South Side was increasingly suffering from White Flight, but it was a good place to grow up. Michelle worked hard at school and followed her brother to Princeton. On graduating she was accepted into the prestigious Harvard Law School and returned home to take up a post in a high status law firm in Chicago.
Up to this point she had approached her career by working very hard at her studies and by volunteering with various community groups. She was a woman with a mission, successfully managing by working long hours and planning every detail of her life.
Barack Obama came to her as an intern, to some extent following her career path. But his background was very different, with mixed parents and a childhood spent in Hawaii and Indonesia. He also had a very different attitude to life.
I found this part of her memoir the most fascinating. As she reflects, she was succeeding in the life she had envisaged for herself: a well-paid job, with prospects in a law firm, and yet a dissatisfaction with her life. She took what she calls a ‘swerve’. Not only did she marry Obama, but she decided to leave behind the private law firm to go into work that supported the public good in Chicago, community projects in Health Care and the University.
When the children were born she continued to work, finding support from other working mothers and from her own mother, who deserves her own biography. Pretty soon Obama was launching himself into his political career, having cut his teeth in community projects, writing and editing the Harvard Law Journal.
Now she had to decide how to be married to this ambitious man, raise her two children and manage her own professional life. Again, this required some swerves in her attitude, to what it meant to live and work in such a marriage, alongside all the other issues women meet, while also encountering prejudice against Black women (and occasionally against tall women too).
The ‘swerves’ are not presented as sacrifices, more that she accepted the role to maintain their family. They both worked at it. He was more driven than her, having a great ability to manage huge amounts of information and to keep his eyes on the higher ambitions and ideals and to work for them.
The White House and FLOTUS
The section of her memoir about her time in the White House reveals the ambiguity of the position of First Lady. She had no constitutional power at all, but very high visibility and some influence. She decided to use the power she had in three main areas: children’s health, military families and promoting the aspirations and the prospects of young women.
But the costs were very high. The Obamas were committed to bringing up their girls in as normal way as possible, in the face of extreme secret service security measures and extreme fame and exposure. They were also set up to be criticised by anyone who cared to, on any grounds. And it became increasingly obvious that much of their legacy would be lost after the 2016 election.
“When they go low …”
I often find that I have provoked a negative reaction in people through my opposition to the accepted norms, to political assumptions, especially about feminism and women. So, I try to keep in mind her exhortation given high publicity in her speech at the Democratic Convention in 2016 in the face of some brutal events in the Presidential campaign:
Dignity had always gotten us through. It was a choice, and not always an easy one, but the people I respected most in life made it again and again, every single day. There was a motto Barack and I tried to live by, and I offered it that night from the stage: When they go low, we go high. (407)
I did feel sorry for the enclosed, bubble life, of the White House, and the trappings of fame and security. Her own actions to support better child health through healthier eating (garden in the White House), the military families (with Mrs Biden) and the promotion of girls is all laudable. And all a terrible contrast to the administration that followed.
Making a difference
Having read the book, I watched the film (Becoming on Netflix), which focused on the tour to promote the book, interspersed with illustrated extracts, with additional photos and comments from her family and staff. Huge numbers turned out to hear her speak, and she also made time for small groups: young people from reservations, young Black women, all young people, and my favourite section was the group of older Black women who told Michelle Obama how proud they were to see a strong Black independent and intelligent woman in the White House. The film made it clear that she has given courage and inspiration to many people in the US and beyond.
And now, with Kamala Harris gaining the position of Vice-President elect, it seems that the American public learning to embrace these inspiring women.
Remember Ann Petry’s novel The Street, published in 1946 (Virago reissue 2019).
Becoming by Michelle Obama (2018) published by Viking. 428pp. Thanks to Anna for the loan of her copy.